When it comes to making high-minded but empty promises, Barack Obama is the all-time champion. Unfortunately, like too many glib talking politicians, all too often he has no intention of actually fulfilling his promises. In the first place, the Republican Congress is not going to pass the legislation necessary to create a new $60 billion government entitlement at a time when it can’t even adequately fund our national defense. In the second place, free tuition for everyone is a bad idea even if happened to be feasible (more about this aspect of Obama’s proposal later). The key here is to understand that Barack Obama never intended to implement this overblown promise in the first place. To the grandstanding president, the goal was achieved as soon as he uttered the words “free tuition.”
The president’s goal, of course, was to appear to be a compassionate patron of the people—someone who is looking out for the little man while forcing the Republicans in Congress who would have to fund this ill-conceived proposal to look like the bad guys. In addition to being a bad idea, President Obama’s latest high-minded promise of free tuition for everyone at local community colleges is just an overdone bit of political theater. In this age of rising college costs, such a proposal is bound to sound good to a lot of people. But those who think free tuition to community colleges is a good idea should consider the old maxim that says, If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
In analyzing Obama’s free-tuition proposal, most commentators have focused on the fact that Congress is not likely to fund a new government entitlement that is riddled with flawed thinking. This criticism is both accurate and appropriate. However, there is an even bigger problem with the president’s pandering proposal: free tuition to community colleges is a bad idea. If this sounds like blasphemy, stay with me for a few more paragraphs while I make my case. There are several reasons why offering free tuition to community college students is a bad idea.
The first reason is that many of the people who attend community colleges can already afford the low tuition these institutions charge. Local community colleges pride themselves on being gateway institutions that provide convenient and affordable access to higher education. Why should students who can already afford the tuition be subsidized by the government which, of course, means by the American taxpayer? Is offering so-called free tuition fair to those who will be taxed to pay for it? The dirty little secret behind anything that is “free” is that it is not free. Nothing is free. In every instance somebody pays—a fact that any Economics 101 student at any community college could have told the president. Consequently, those who can pay should pay.
Certainly there are students who cannot afford even the lower costs of community colleges, but for these there are already avenues for addressing the problem. There are already government entitlement and need-based scholarship programs readily available for those who cannot afford the tuition at community colleges. For example, needy community college students qualify for the Pell Grant; a federal subsidy that covers the cost of tuition and books and usually has money left over to boot. In fact, the availability of the Pell Grant has led to an interesting phenomenon: many community colleges now find that some of the need-based scholarships available through their foundations are not even applied for because students are already receiving Pell Grants.
Another avenue for those who cannot afford the tuition at community colleges is the old-fashioned kind of financial aid that I and many of the readers at this site used: a job. It seems that President Obama and his fellow entitlement Democrats have forgotten—or probably never knew—that community colleges are structured to maximize the opportunities of their students to work and go to school. Community college classes are scheduled during the day, at night, on weekends, and online so that students who work have just as many opportunities to schedule classes as those who don’t work. Further, employers have learned that students who work their way through college make better employees than those who go to school on someone else’s dime. It takes perseverance and determination to work and got to college, and employers need personnel with lots of both. Those who work their way through college tend to be good students who take education seriously because they have skin in the game—it’s their money that is either put to good use or wasted. It’s a lot easier to goof off in college when someone else is paying the tuition.
The most important reason that free tuition for community college students is a bad idea is probably not apparent to those outside of the system. However, professors at community colleges can tell horror stories about what the entitlement mentality has done to the motivation of their students. Students who have no skin in the game have little motivation to attend classes, do their assignments, study hard, or do the other things necessary to learn. Any community college professor can give myriad examples of subsidized students who want a degree, but don’t want an education—students whose attitude toward education is that it is owed to them without any work on their part. These same professors can tell stories about students who have no qualms with paying the tuition for classes they do not plan to even attend because it’s not their money they are wasting. In this age of entitlement, there are many community college students who will skip classes, sleep through those they attend, completely neglect their studies, and fail all of their tests, but still expect to pass. Why? Because they have no skin in the game. Again, it’s not their money they are wasting.
Having taught in a community college and state college for 38 years, I can state without equivocation that my best students are and have always been those who are working their way through college without any kind of subsidy from the government or any other source. These students tend to be in college because they need an education to better their circumstances at work and in life. They have skin in the game. Consequently, they take their education seriously. Students who work their way through college tend to be all business. As a result, they often clash with their frivolous, entitled classmates who are ambivalent at best about learning. Community college professors enjoy having these serious, self-paying students in their classes because serious students have little patience with those who are just occupying space on someone else’s dime. Serious students tend to weed out their less serious counterparts.
In a recent class I taught, one of my students was a retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant who is serious about his education. In fact, he considers higher education a privilege not a right. Like many community college students, he works all day and goes to school at night. A young man seated next to him in this particular class was the stereotypical entitled goof-off. The goof off liked to sleep through class. Worse yet he never pulled his weight on group projects. One night during the class break I observed the retired Gunnery Sergeant in animated conversation with Mr. Goof-Off. I don’t know what the Gunny said to him, but Mr. Goof-Off did not return to class. The next day he dropped out. Good riddance.
If students are provided free tuition to community colleges, these institutions will soon be no different than the free public high schools that feed them: warehouses for unmotivated students who take education for granted and think it is owed to them. Thanks to the Pell Grant and government guaranteed student loans, colleges and universities are already suffering from the entitlement mentality. People appreciate those things they have to work for. Correspondingly, they do not appreciate or take seriously what they are given free. The world students enter after college will expect them to pull their own weight and pay their own way. We do them no favor by expecting less of them in college.
One final reason providing free tuition to community college students is a bad idea is spiraling costs. If the government is paying, how long do you think it will be before community colleges raise their tuition rates to equal those of major universities? In fact, one of the reasons community college tuition has increased at a rate well above the inflation rate is government subsidies. When the government pays the tuition—whether through Pell Grants, student loans, or the proposed “free tuition”—students don’t care how high tuition costs are. It is only when they are paying out of their own pockets that they feel tuition increases. Students who pay their own way are more likely to make their dissatisfaction known when a college increases its tuition rates. Students are just like anyone else, liberals in particular. They don’t mind spending someone else’s money but they take it personally when they have to spend their own.